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Westminster Abbey

The Great Pavement

One of the greatest treasures of Westminster Abbey is something most visitors are not even aware of - for it lies under their feet, hidden and protected by a thick carpet…

The Great Pavement
The Great Pavement, Westminster Abbey
© Dean & Chapter of Westminster Abbey 2003
This is the Great Pavement, inlaid with precious marbles, before the high altar. Much more than a piece of decoration, the complex design of this floor is meant to represent "the eternal pattern of the Universe".

The pavement once carried an inscription in brass letters, of which only 11 still remain. Luckily, it was copied in the 15th century, and so we can read the following words:


In the four years before this Year of our Lord 1272,
King Henry III, the City, Odoricus and the Abbot
set in place these porphyry stones.


The Abbot was Richard de Ware who, on being elected, travelled to Italy in 1259 to have his post confirmed by the Pope. Here he discovered beautiful inlaid marble floors, known as Cosmati work, after a Roman family specialising in the craft. The mention of "the City", meaning Rome, suggests that the pavement was at least partly paid for by the Pope. Records show that King Henry III also paid £50 towards the work.


Richard de Ware returned to England with a Cosmati craftsman called Peter Odericus, also mentioned in the inscription. Odericus brought with him a supply of beautifully coloured stones, mostly recycled from ancient Roman ruins. These included green and purple porphyry, onyx marble and a golden-yellow limestone called giallo antico (antique yellow). England provided other stones used in the pavement - alabaster, black limestone, Devonian limestone and Purbeck marble (grey-green limestone from the Isle of Purbeck).


Design and meaning

The pavement Odericus completed in 1268 took the form of a square measuring 24ft 10in on each side. Within this was another square, set at 45º to the outer one, its corners pointing to the cardinal directions. The inner square contained five roundels, four of them arranged around a larger central one made of onyx marble. Around this central roundel, coloured yellow, orange, pink and grey, was another Latin inscription:


Here is the perfectly rounded sphere which reveals
the eternal pattern of the universe.


This was the most important part of the whole pavement. It was on this very roundel that late medieval monarchs sat in the Coronation Chair when they were crowned. They would be anointed with holy oil - an act thought to confer God's power on the king.


Another inscription ran around the four outer roundels. This verse inscription is stranger than anything invented by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code:


If the reader wittingly reflects upon all that is laid down,
he will discover here the end of the primum mobile:
the hedge lives for three years,
add in turn dogs, and horses and men
stags and ravens, eagles, huge sea monsters, the world;
each that follows triples the years of the one before.


This inscription refers to the medieval belief that the earth was fixed at the centre of nine moving spheres, which carried the sun, moon, five known planets, and the fixed stars. The ninth and outermost sphere, beyond the fixed stars, was called the "primum mobile'' (first moved) because it was thought to be the sphere set in motion by God, which provided the motive power of all the other spheres.


"The end of the primum mobile" means the age of the universe when it will come to an end - at the Day of Judgement. The verse claims that this can be calculated by tripling the life-spans of God's other creations. So the hedge, standing for three years, is tripled to give the life-span of a dog (nine years), which in turn is tripled to give the life-span of a horse (27 years). The final age, the life-span of the primum mobile, is 19,683 years - three raised to the power of nine. This was appropriate for the age of the ninth sphere.


The inscription reflects a belief in a divinely ordered and perfect universe, seen as a living creation, like a hedge or a stag. The pavement's rich patterns also reflect this divine order. The four roundels surrounding the central one, for example, probably represent the four elements - earth, air, fire and water.


The medieval English churchman and philosopher, Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253), wrote that "God brings about an order that is always good order, and that consists in a beauty that imitates His own nature". It was to reveal this beauty and perfect order that the Great Pavement was built, in the most sacred part of the abbey.


Restoration

Over the years, the pavement has suffered much damage, mainly due to its use of Purbeck marble, which is vulnerable to damp. Several attempts to restore it have been made, often using inferior materials which have added to the problem. At present, a major project is under way to inspect and clean the pavement. The conservators take microscopic samples of the stones, to identify the different materials used, and carefully dust and clean the pavement using de-ionised water. The long-term aim is to conserve the pavement so that it can be exposed for people to see and enjoy in the future.

Want to learn more about the Great Pavement? Click here to listen to our interview with Abbey conservator Vanessa Simeoni

Find out about the Westminster Abbey pavement conservation project here